Film Review – Free Men
One of the elements that peaked my interest in seeing Ismael Ferroukhi’s French film Free Men (2011) was the lead actor. Tahar Rahim is a performer who made a large impression on me after starring in the Oscar-nominated film A Prophet (2009). In that film, Rahim played a naïve, scared, and aimless new member of a French prison who very gradually learns what it takes to survive and even flourish within that world, eventually turning out to be one of its most powerful leaders. I mention that because this new film contains similar traits, but is set in a different world. Instead of a prison, we are transported to German-occupied Paris in the early 1940s, right in the heart of World War II. Once again, we see Rahim’s character transform from a man who has no direction to a man who understands his situation and what he must to do to live through it.
I can completely understand why Ferroukhi and his team would want to work with Rahim. This is territory he has been through before, and it seems that he is very comfortable in portraying this kind of role. Rahim has the ability to play different kinds emotional and psychological levels. He can play confused and scared during one scene, while having the ability to make a tonal shift to give off a tough, weathered, and controlled presence. It’s a skill that not many performers can accomplish, and he does it well. The problem here is that he does it so well, in fact, that you can parallel his performance with the one he has in A Prophet and see that they are almost too similar. His gestures and delivery in both are very much the same, containing the same kind of confusion, adaptation, and eventual acceptance that his characters go through. As a test, it might be interesting to watch the films back to back, and see what differences there are between the two, if any.
In Free Men, he plays a man known only as Younes, an Algerian immigrant living in Paris and making his way selling and trading on the black market. Opening credits explain the mass movement of immigrants (particularly Muslims) to France at the start of the war, only to be sent back to their native homes once German forces invaded the country. Some went back peacefully, others chose to stay and hide from authorities, Younes being one of them. However, after being caught with black market items, Younes is quickly arrested and placed in the custody of the French police. Police officials, seeing the benefit of Younes’s ability to interact and weave himself amongst different kinds of people, offer him an ultimatum: work with them to infiltrate a local Muslim mosque and provide any kind of useful information regarding the resistance movement, or go back to Algeria empty-handed. Younes, not surprisingly, accepts their offer.
This is certainly a story that we have seen before, told many times in many different genres of movies. You have a character with a certain kind motivation who is put amongst a group he knows little to nothing about, only to have his focus shift to those that he is interacting with. Finally, he joins their group and supports their cause. It’s a tried and true method of telling a story. What’s good about this film is that—despite a plot that we are all too familiar with—Ferroukhi (along with co-writer Alain-Michel Blanc) created it within a framework that felt new. A part of what makes this work is the character of Salim Halali (Mahmud Shalaby). After making his way into the mosque, Younes meets and befriends Salim, a gifted Algerian singer. Salim is so good at his music that he attracts onlookers of all kinds, from bar patrons to even Nazi soldiers. Salim works as the catalyst for Younes’s growth throughout the film. It is Salim’s enthusiasm for his art that sparks Younes’s desire to find something more meaningful in his life. He realizes that working in the black market is not something he can do forever, and that he wants something beyond that. When Younes finds out that Salim is secretly a Jew hiding from the Nazi SS, Younes discovers exactly what he was meant to do.
As a political thriller, clocking in at a trim ninety-nine minutes, the film does have a very steady pace—perhaps a bit too steady, as I found it to drag at certain instances. Much of the tension that the film tries to pull off doesn’t always have that noticeable of an effect. For freedom fighters working to resist against powers that hold them down, many of the characters seem to move about freely, wherever and whenever they please. The German and French police authorities seem as though they are pushed into the background; there isn’t a sense of immediate danger or that the authorities might catch the freedom fighters. Only in the final act of the film do we see authorities trying to hunt down our protagonists, but even then they seem to be just plot devices that we know will conveniently come, as the script needs them to. Lastly, I felt that the film was too short for Younes to convincingly evolve from beginning to end. His character arc developed much too quickly; the short time frame not allowing him to breathe and expand in a naturalistic fashion.
With all that said, though, I do feel that Free Men is a well-made movie, economical in its craftsmanship and production values, and effective with its lead performance. It does not have a large-scale epic quality to it; it’s much more subdued and subtle. A part of me feels as though if I had not seen A Prophet before seeing this movie, I would have liked this much more, because the similarities between the journeys that both characters take are too noticeable not to be mentioned. Even the outfits, make-up, and costumes that Tahar Rahim has as both characters look alike. Free Men functions as a historical document, a fictionalized account of events and situations that really did happen during that time in the war; I appreciated seeing a perspective that I have not often been exposed to before. Anyone that would want to have a deeper insight to what happened would appreciate seeing this film as well.
Final Grade: B
Free Men opens April 13th, 2012, SIFF Cinemas at the Film Center